D'ya Know What I Mean?

This blog has recognised the established well of words and phrases that everyone in football, from the top of the football pyramid to the bottom, draws from to express themselves. Many of these phrases originate in football, and the odd one has even crept into general usage outside of the game's bubble.

However, there seems to be an elite group of words and phrases - which are used consistently by football figures- that have been uprooted from their historically mainstream context, never to return. These phrases are now very rarely used in "real life", and have been well entrenched in the football lexicon, but still look far too sophisticated for the (relative) morons that are using them. Would the club chairman of a lower-echelon feeder club really be able to define the word "derisory" if it hadn't been commandeered for the purposes of publicly pouring scorn on a transfer bid from one of the big boys? Of course not - the club's owner has seen "derisory" used thousands of times before by equally unknowing supremos.

These phrases cover every nook and cranny of the sport. We have previously documented the glorious variety of verbs for shooting at goal, the majority of which seem to be nearly obsolete elsewhere in society. When did rifle become a verb, for example?

Goalkeepers often elect to punch - when did you last elect to go to the pub? Custodians between the posts are often grateful to their stalwart centre-half for marshalling their obdurate defence. At the other end of the pitch, profligate strikers can squander gilt-edged chances, their embarrassment only spared by the linesman's flag should they have been adjudged offside.

More successful attackers take advantage of slide-rule passes from midfield schemers, cutting a swathe through the opposition defence, and finishing with aplomb (or, perhaps, an impudent chip). Seriously, what else on the planet has ever been done with aplomb? Every football fan knows what aplomb means in their world but they daren't use it at work, as it would sound ridiculous.

You know when a defender keeps an attacker at arm's length while the ball trickles over for a goal-kick? That's shepherding that is. Apologies to anyone reading this who is, or knows, a shepherd, but you're unlikely to encounter anyone doing any genuine shepherding. Ever had anything rescinded, other than a harsh red card? Ever lambasted someone for being lacksadaisical at work, only to see them turn on a sixpence and maraud out of the door? No.

When football has failed in its attempt to lay claim to non-football phrases, it simply corrupts them and makes off with awkward counterfeit versions. "Champing at the bit" has been warped by visibly confused footballers into "chomping on the bit". No-one seems to know if it's "stomping ground" or "stamping ground", either.

If you have any to add, comment below or tweet me at @FootballCliches - I'm feeling lacksadaisical.


Jonathan said...

Audacious- a chip may be impudent, but a lob is invariably audacious.

Acute. Used for shots emanating from near to but wide of the goal- usually succesful ones, a la Mark Hughes v Barcelona 1991. 'He squeezed it in at the near post from what seemed an impossibly acute angle'.

Point blank. Reflex. A goalkeeper who is renowned as a 'shotstopper' (he probably also 'prefers to punch' pulls of a reflex save from point blank range (it was many years after first encountering the latter phrase on the back page that I came across it in its original firearms context. Like you say as eleven year olds we unquestioningly adopt these obscure terms which we would not dream of using, or know how to use, outside of the football bubble. And sometimes it stays that way).

dan said...

Possibly slightly away from the actual field of play, but I am heartily sick of "swoop for ace" as a form of transfer shorthand. Rather than actually using words that people haven't used since the early 80's (and in turn, describing terrible rubbish as an "ace"), could the papers start to describe transfers realistically?

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure what point you're trying to make here, many of the examples you provide are correct uses of language or metaphor. Of course a lot of footballers, commentators and pundits are only able to use these words and phrases correctly because they have been "commandeered" by the sport, but that's like saying a literature student only knows the meaning of certain words because he has read them in Shakespeare plays. Everybody picks up language from their surroundings, and the more expressions that can be brought into footballers' vocabularies the better as far as I'm concerned. Every time I hear someone described as a "top, top player" or a "very, very consistent performer", I die a little inside. Even saying "excellent" or "superb" or "tremendous" would be an improvement on "very, very". One thing I find even more annoying than that is when a commentator says something like "that chance was literally on a plate."

The Angle said...


I admit my exact point might be a bit unclear.

Of course, people have to learn certain words from SOMEWHERE. But in the cases above, it's the combination of:
1) these phrases being almost obsolete in any other walk of life and
2) the fact that players/fans would almost certainly not use these words if they hadn't have been exposed to them via the game.
3) How prominently these words stand out from the rest of the limited vocabulary of the football fraternity.

It's the sheer, robotic, lack of awareness about the usage of these phrases that fascinates me the most. I certainly don't begrudge their use.

Yours with aplomb,


Anonymous said...

Read the George Orwell essay, "Politics and the English Language" - it's actually quite frightening how these glib phrases actually condition how we think - ie it isn't think then speak, it becomes, speak then think. The familiar cliche can become dangerous. At the risk of being politically correct, that is why casual race and gender remarks do not matter.

The Angle said...

You're not the first to direct me to that - I'll take a look. Cheers!

DrabWilly said...

How come deflections are always 'wicked'?

Anonymous said...

It's 'lackadaisical', but apart from that - excellent piece!

Anonymous said...

A 'stonewall' penalty is another odd/annoying one - it's not only over-used, it also doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

The Angle said...

Yes, it IS 'lackadaisical', but not in football! For some reason, it has inherited an extra S in the middle.

Leigh and Woodhouse's excellent Football Lexicon (Faber & Faber, 2004) corroborates this claim.

Django said...

Some random irritations:

footballers saying "spitting feathers" (=thirsty) when they mean "spitting blood" (=angry).

Kenny Dalglish saying "any way, shape or form" in every interview.

"To be honest" - so... everything else has been a lie?

"As I said" - when? In an interview last week?

"Hailing" - goes on all the time. "Ferguson hails Scholes" etc.

Anonymous said...

Grass roots. Absolutely hate that phrase.

Root and Branch investigation (usually used when England fail again at another tournament)

damianf said...

Nice list of football phrases here

chelsea chatter said...

Serious dearth of talismanic players these days. Do people still wear talismans?

Anonymous said...

Hack again?!

Paul Ward said...

Re strikers squandering their gilt-edged chances, it can be because they've hit it too well. Unless "he really caught that one" which means it went over the bar.

Paul Ward said...

"Quality" as something that is slapped on a football with a paint brush. "Loads of quality on that cross". "Not enough quality on the pass." (Chiefly Hansen so may not count.)

cf "elect" - "eluded" - its only known use, other than "eluded police" - "the cross eluded everyone" - ie was overhit.

Rich Johnson said...

I've always liked the pleasing almost-oxymoronery of something going "narrowly wide."

On the other hand (baboom) commentators have developed the tic of describing goalkeepers "fisting" the ball. I wish I was innocent enough for this not to make me flinch and/or snigger, but it does.

deb price said...

The one that particularly does my swede in is 'He's looking to atone for his error'. Used when a player has had a hand in opposition's goal and then gets a chance at the other end. I can just imagine a player rising for a header thinking 'Ooh this'll atone for my earlier error.'Bullshit!